Field Studies #08

Blackcurrants | Despite the hammering it took from last week’s buck and boys, the blackcurrant harvest was a bumper one. Being our son’s favourite jam, this was important. My wife declared, though, that it was in desperate need of a prune. So too is the St John’s wort (yellow flowers at the left of the photo), which has outgrown its space, but it seems to thrive on our neglect, producing more flowers and attracting more bees than pretty much anything in the garden.

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure | While watching the blackcurrant harvest from the window, the pastoral ambience of Virginia Astley’s 1983 album came to mind. Declared by Pitchfork to be a ‘bucolic cult classic’, the delicate, daydreaming piano backed by birdsong and church bells, with the rhythms occasionally being kept by the squeak and gush of an old water pump or the alternating bleats of lamb and ewe or the hoot of a male tawny owl, this could so easily have been an unbearably twee evocation of a summer’s day in a rustic rural idyll. But with the judicious use of synthesizers and processing, and the unique musical talent that Astley displays on her other, song-based albums, it somehow avoids this and turns out to be something singular and special. The closest touchstones I can think of in mood and connection to the English countryside are the lazy bee buzz and skylark of Pink Floyd’s Granchester Meadows; Hergest Ridge, Mile Oldfield’s 1974 rural follow-up to Tubular Bells; and, much more recently, Peter Rogers’ superb swift-accompanied soundtrack to Melissa Harrison’s podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. And coming in with blackcurrant-stained hands, my son caught another nostalgic echo of English rural life: ‘Oooh, Bagpuss!’, he declared at the first two notes of ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’, before looking nonplussed as they were repeated to the strain of an opening and closing garden gate. But he was right that there is something of Bagpuss’s sepia introduction to the music.

On Gallows Down | Long my favourite presence on Twitter, I was excited when Nicola Chester announced last year that we had a book to look forward to. It has been immeasurably worth the wait. On Gallows Down is an exceptional work of memoir and nature writing. It also presents a generous account of what it is to belong to a place and be connected to nature, one that is open to all, and of how the love that binds us to a landscape can, in the face of environmental destruction, ‘hurt and reward in equal measure’. And importantly for me, it includes a touching, inspirational narrative of bringing up children in such a way that nature is a central, deeply meaningful part of their lives, something we aspire to do with our own son.

I’ve ‘hefted’ my children here with wild words, stories and natural artefacts, landmarks. I wanted the place, its meanings, histories and connections to keep happening; to continue and to emanate a strong pull for them. Magnetic home. But, as they got older, I didn’t want to hold them here. I wanted to make sure that, wherever they ended up, the nature of the place they found themselves in would be a talisman for them; a lodestone, a waymarker, a way in and a way to ‘home’.

School Run | One way I foster that connection is by always having weaved us through the woods on the valley side to and from school, instead of taking the direct route along the main road down in the valley bottom. It is only slightly longer, increasing our daily mileage from what would be 1.4 to 1.6 miles, but the ascent is where we get the exercise payoff, with only 45m of daily ascent along the main road, but 290m through the woods. That’s a Ben Nevis every week, or very nearly two Everests every 190-day school year. And not Everest from Base Camp (that’s every 12 days), but from sea level. But the real dividend to putting in this effort is for the peace of the woods and the daily encounters with its wildlife. Today, for instance, on our way through dark tunnels of holly, a wren’s stone-click alarm alerted us to something that was disquieting it. Suddenly, a bark-brown bulk pitched off its perch, and we got to watch a tawny owl threading its way through a needle-eye’s worth of a gap in the canopy. It was the closest view of a tawny my son had ever had, and it left us bubbling with excitement all the way to the school gates.

Forgotten Footpath Heroes | One reason that we can take this route to school is that we are able to link together a number of public rights of way that keep us away from the road. It is an oft-made boast around here that, by some measure or another – it is never made very clear, but it is something like greatest density, or perhaps greatest total length – we have more public rights of way than anywhere in the country. I have no idea whether this is true, or where the claim originated, but it is plausible. The density of the network of public rights of way in our valley is impressive, and it means you have substantial freedom to explore and that the repertoire of walks at your disposal is almost endless. This blessing was brought home to me recently when looking at the OS map of the eastern fringes of Dartmoor, where whole swathes of beautiful-looking countryside are bereft of the inviting little green-dashed lines. I have often wondered why the upper Calder Valley is so well endowed with rights of way, and I think there must be two elements to the explanation. Firstly, it is a consequence of its landscape history: the poor land could not support families on the income from farming alone, so a cottage industry of domestic textile production developed which meant that farming was largely for subsistence and each farm’s holding need only be very modest (~15–20 acres). The landscape could therefore support an extraordinary density of small farms, with a correspondingly dense network of paths and lanes connecting them, a network which grew further when the industrial mills, having put paid to domestic textile production in the farmhouses in the late 19th century, came to employ the former handloom weavers and new routes were needed for their daily ‘commute’ from the ‘tops’ to the valley bottom. But the existence of these historic routes, while a necessary condition for the modern network of rights of way we now enjoy, was not sufficient. It took what I can only imagine was a diligent, committed team of officials to register these routes on the ‘definitive map’ that all local authorities were required to create following the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. If this exercise, which took decades for some authorities, had not been carried out with zeal and determination, many of these historic ways would have been lost, and perhaps this was the case in other regions that now suffer from a lack of access. It would be nice to know who these forgotten footpath heroes were so they could be celebrated.

Swifts | But just occasionally, we forsake the woods and stick to the valley on the way home from school, and the phenomenon that can bring about this change of routine is the communal feeding of swifts over the river. Nesting as they do in the centre of town, we rarely get to see them low down in our neighbourhood, though we often see them feeding much higher up. But by the beginning of July the adults are beginning to fatten themselves up ready for their return journey to south of the Sahara (this year’s young will follow later), and when the conditions are right this brings them hawking low over the river, and we know a couple of bridges to stand on where they exhilaratingly flick past our faces. There is a bittersweetness to this every year, knowing they are preparing to leave in a few short weeks, having only arrived in May. We get so little time to enjoy them; they are like the ash tree: last to arrive, first to leave. So we revelled in their aerial mastery for a while after school, distracted from time to time by grey wagtail fledglings, a dipper and a fish jumping clean ten inches out of the water.

Gallery |

School run
Jumble Hole Clough
Buzzard over the Sunderland Pasture plantation
Meadow pipit
South Clough Head above Luddenden
Sheep, Lodge Hill

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